Nation's critical infrastructure cyber defenses weak, DHS tells hearing

The nation's critical infrastructure is vulnerable to cyber attacks and better information sharing is needed to strengthen defenses.

That's the message Charles Edwards, deputy inspector general for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, told a Congressional committee at a public hearing on Thursday.

Since 1990, Industrial Control Systems (ICS), which are used to manage components of the country's critical infrastructure, have been connecting to the Internet to improve their operations, Edwards explained in written testimony submitted to the House Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies.

However, companies hooked their control systems into the public Internet with little regard for security. "[Security] for ICS was inherently weak because it allowed remote control of processes and exposed ICS to cyber security risks that could be exploited over the Internet," Edwards said.

"As a result, ICS are increasingly under attack by a variety of malicious sources," he continued. " These attacks range from hackers looking for attention and notoriety to sophisticated nation-states intent on damaging equipment and facilities, disgruntled employees, competitors, and even personnel who inadvertently bring malware into the workplace by inserting an infected flash drive into a computer."

Edwards cited survey results that showed that a majority of the companies in the energy sector had experienced cyber attacks, and about 55 percent of these attacks targeted control systems.

"Successful attacks on ICS can give malicious users direct control of operational systems," he said, "creating the potential for large-scale power outages or man-made environmental disasters and cause physical damage, loss of life, and other cascading effects that could disrupt services."

He went on to say that information sharing between government and the operators of control systems was important in strengthening the security of those systems.

"DHS has strengthened the security of ICS by addressing the need to share critical cybersecurity information, analyze vulnerabilities, verify emerging threats, and disseminate mitigation strategies," he said.

[Also see: Experts ding DHS vulnerability sharing plan as too limited]

Threat information sharing has been a sore point between the federal government and private sector for years. "The government classifies information that on review or second look needs to be classified," Shane Shook, chief knowledge officer and global vice president of consulting for Cylance, said in an interview.

"By classifying it," he said, "they restrict it so much that it's not available to the organizations and people it really matters to."

Information in cybersecurity is continuously evolving so even short delays in receiving information can be harmful. "You can't wait three weeks, six months -- whatever the period is for government review -- in order to have information that's useful," Shook said.

He acknowledged, though, that in the last two years the DHS has done a great job passing information the energy and financial sector. "The problem is the information is always six to nine months old," he said.

To obtain better and faster threat information banks and energy companies have formed their own alliances to share information. "They'll share IP addresses, domain names and file names that allow them to detect ongoing campaigns within hours of noticing them," Shook said.

"They're forming alliances to share information that they can't get from government," he added.

A major criticism of the government's handling of threat information has been that it considers sharing a one-way street: it wants the private sector to be generous with what it gives the government, but stingy with what it gives the private sector.

"That has been very, very true for a long time," Phyllis Schneck, vice president and global public sector chief technology officer for McAfee, said in an interview. "But I've seen that change drastically over the past two years."

"The government is beginning to understand that to engage industry, you can't just ask for something and never be heard from again," she said.

Going forward, trust will play an important role in information sharing, said Bit9 CTO Harry Sverdlove. "It requires trust on both parts -- on the government to disclose information as expediently and consistently as possible," he said in an interview, "as well as trust on private companies receiving information to share some of their intelligence with the federal government."

Read more about malware/cybercrime in CSOonline's Malware/Cybercrime section.

Tags applicationsICSsoftwarecritical infrastructuredata protectioncybercrimeDepartment of Homeland Securityinformation sharingData Protection | MalwareDHSphysical securitysecuritylegal

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